“Homo homini lupus” or “a man is a wolf to another man” has historically been one of the most popular dicta used in political philosophy to denote the hypothetical primal condition of human societies and justify their need for submission to a sovereign authority. In his De Cive, Hobbes drew upon this proverb to depict the brutish and antagonistic status of human beings in their natural state. The Hobbesian “natural condition of the mankind”, or better “state of nature” as later put by Lock, has been underlying the foundations of contemporary political thinking. Theories of sovereignty and the preliminary conceptualization of the state were both premised upon the fundamental assumption that the inherent nature of human beings is inclined towards lust, wealth and power that could not let human societies harmoniously coexist, unless an authority is established to rule them and exercise sovereign power over them. What is a sovereign though bounded to when it comes to his own lust, lascivious acts, uncontrollable hedonism, power and brutality? Is it the God, his moral conscience, the state, the rule of law, or the social contract with the people and the duty to protect them that rein him in? Is it all of them or none? To put it another way, how far can a sovereign authority go for the sake of lust?
There is probably no better example in graphic literature that manifests the way the unrestrained indulgence of lust, known as ‘libertinism’ (from Latin libertinus), intertwines with despotism and sovereign power, than the graphic novel saga The Borgias, scripted by Alejandro Jodorowsky and intricately illustrated by Milo Manara. The four-part graphic novel series, published between 2004-2006, draws on a fair amount of historical license and unfolds the licentious endeavors of the Borgia dynasty to dominate the political life of Rome in the 15th and early 16th century. With sovereignty having eventually been embodied into the clerical rule, most prominently through the formulation of the Papal States (Stato Pontificio) over the Italian Peninsula, at the time of Borgias, the Pope, besides being the head of the Catholic Church, had the sole and direct sovereign rule of the state. Thus, the series presents how Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia along with his family commit murders, sexual abuses, and seduce political opponents to ensure Rodrigo’s election as the new Pope Alexander VI, as well as prosperous political positions for the rest of his family.
From the very first moment of the narrative, libertinism is the main political weapon of the Borgias and the major means employed to relentlessly affirm their sovereign power until the very decay of the dynasty. As Klaas Tindemans has elsewhere described, there are two guises of libertinism when it comes to sovereign power: libertinism as a performative means to attract public attention and ensure the strengthening of existing political positions; libertinism as an extreme manifestation of political power in Sadean terms, which is rather inclined towards sadomasochism (Tindemans, 2012: 135). Both leanings of libertinism seem to spring from the dominium aspect of sovereignty, mainly on the basis of unequal power dynamics between the libertine and his victims and his corporeal domination over the latter. Libertinism releases the superego and marks a return to the inherent ‘state of nature’ of human societies largely driven by carnal pleasures.
This unbalanced dynamic of power between the sovereign libertines and their victims is exclamatory in the way sovereignty is exercised by Pope Alexander VI and the rest of the Borgia family. The artists set the scene of the comic in a hopeless Rome, where gluttony, alcoholism and sordid carnal pleasures are the only means of survival and consolation in the shadow of the Black Death. The use of libertinism, thus, becomes a performative device for the Borgias’ to promote their political positions and align with the volonté générale (general will) of Rome’s people. In the quest of ascension as the new Pope, after the death of Pope Innocentius VIII, Rodrigo Borgia commits murders, seduces politicians, and sexually guides his illegitimate children by Vannozza dei Cattanei (principally Cesare and Lucrezia) in order to sensually tempt political opponents and make new allies. Soon after his election, the new Pope organizes large feasts of sexual events with bountiful tables and lashings of wine, orgies in all possible sexual positions, with the papal palace itself becoming a theater of total depravity. The sexual energy peaks in the wedding party of his daughter Lucrezia with the lord of Pesaro Giovanni Sforza as well as on an Easter Sunday eve when the Pope organizes massive ceremonies of carnal pleasure and voyeurism, consecrating even incest among the papal family members in the name of God. These images, emphatically depicted by Manara with vivid and colorful details, are saturated with complex textiles, frescoes and renaissance paintings, where the reader has to scrutinize the drawing until identifying the main characters of the series among dozens of other debauchees, in a way that reminds of the puzzle-book series Where’s Wally. Such events are not only reduced to the papal family members, since, under the rule of Borgias, everyone is capable to literally do anything, with the Pope himself willing to offer the lord’s pardon to the sinful ones in exchange of a fistful of ducats.
Yet, Borgias’ libertinism is far from being limited to the metonymic panem et circenses (in English ‘bread and circuses’), aiming to the superficial appeasement of Rome’s populace by exceeding all ethical dilemmas. Conversely, it appears to be rather totalitarian. Reminiscent of Marquis de Sade’s story of 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage (most successfully adapted to the film Salò by Pasolini in 1970), the Borgia family commits murders, tortures, and rapes for the sake of vengeance and jouissance, employing different sadomasochistic means to exercise sovereign power. The Borgias have the liberty to claim lust from everyone and violate everyone’s body and life, reducing their victims to ‘bare life’ (bodies), and render them homines sacri deprived of any rights and agency (Agamben, 1998). And here sexual energy, in addition to a performative tool of power, operates as a tool of cynicism, pain and sovereign violence through forced sexual intercourses, sacrileges by the papal family and bloody sexual-abuse scandals. The Borgias literally urinate over their political enemies, mutilate their genitals, rape them before killing them, or slowly kill them while sadistically raping them. They use sexuality as their major political device to manipulate, threaten and torture others and, when committing atrocities, they constantly invoke ‘state of exception’ policies in the name of God. Soon, the theatrum politicum of Rome becomes a theater of boudoir, a ‘theater of bare life’, as Agamben puts it, with sexuality serving as a pure political tool in the merciless hands of the sovereign (Agamben, 1998: 134).
It is this obscenity of the scenario where the greatest strength of the comic lies, showing us that the appeal of hedonism is inseparable from the appeal of sovereign power. And this notorious story of the first sovereign mafia of Italy is not less relevant nowadays. Although the creators predominantly drew on real facts to develop their quasi-fictional narrative, it is easy to allow historians to complain about the accuracy of the plot and argue that Jodorowsky and Manara’s positioning of the Borgias as a pervert and lustful dynasty is hyperbolically illustrated in the series, mainly due to Manara’s excessively erotic style of artwork. Indeed, like most Manara’s stories, The Borgias is a story of sexualism and seduction. However, this time the characters are seduced by sovereign power and a form of corruption which is not merely ‘political’ but ‘bodily’. Whether real or imaginary, the graphic series well succeeds to epitomize the despotic monopoly of violence over human bodies, in the same way that the fabulous imagery surrounding politicians nowadays verifies the sovereigns’ lawless power over bodies, life and death. Just think of the numerous incidences of political figures being accused of sexual misconduct, ranging from local policy makers and judges to leaders of multinational organizations (e.g. IMF) and US presidents. Sexual consent for ensuring nepotism, extreme abuses, pedophilia, and sexual crimes conducted by the sovereign ones, such as the sadomasochistic tortures in the Abu Ghraib jail, demonstrate that libertinism still haunts modern politics.
Societies are still bounded by aristocracies and today’s Borgias continue to act as “Homo homini lupus,” driven by their lust and libido. And when the rule of lust replaces the rule of law, a handful of dollars may still be enough for our mortal gods, the sovereigns, to forgive the sinful ones. Long ago, De Sade drew a connection between sovereign power and libertinism by stating that “there is no man who does not wish to be a despot when he has an erection” (De Sade, 1795). It would not be sensationalist to reverse these words and argue that “there is no man who does not wish to have an erection when he becomes a despot”. It is this ‘politics of erection’ that call for a different reading of sovereignty’s existing manifestations – yet this time a corporeal one.
- Agamben G, 1998 Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, Stanford University Press).
- De Sade M, 2006 Philosophy in the Boudoir. (London, Penguin).
- De Sade M, 2006 The 120 Days of Sodom (Virginia, Wilder Publications).
- Jodorowsky A and Manara M, 2019 The Borgias (Dark Horse Books).
- Tindemans Klaas, 2012 ‘Nature, Desire, and the Law: On Libertinism and Early Modern Legal Theory’ Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies vol. 12 (n.2), pp. 133-145.
Apostolos Tsiouvalas is a PhD Candidate and Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law of UiT the Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway. He is also a Research Associate at The Arctic Institute – Center for Circumpolar Security Studies (TAI), Washington, DC.